Australian Open 2019: Serena Williams admits ‘I’m still learning’ after thrilling win over No1 Simona Halep

Serena Williams beats Simona Halep to reach the quarter-finals of the Australian Open

The top quarter of the women’s draw at this Australian Open was as hard as they get. World No1 Simona Halep, runner-up in the tournament last year and French Open champion, knew she had her work cut out, both to win her second Major and to hold on to that top ranking.

Halep’s section included the seven-time Major champion and former No1, an unseeded Venus Williams—and the oldest woman in the draw made it to a third-round clash. Halep was up to the task, a 6-2, 6-3 win.

But the fourth round threatened the most formidable opponent in the shape of seven-time former Australian champion, Serena Williams, who was returning to Melbourne two years after completing a win/runner-up/win surge in 2017. Last year, she was still recovering from giving birth, followed by post-partum complications, though she would go on to reach the finals at Wimbledon and the US Open.

Her run to the fourth round had also been full of threats, such as the unseeded Eugenie Bouchard, but she came through three matches for the loss of just nine games.

Now it was arguably the biggest showdown in the women’s tournament, current No1 versus perhaps the greatest ever champion. As if facing the embodiment of 23 Majors plus years at No1 were not enough, Halep faced a 1-8 deficit. And that deficit translated to 0-6 on outdoor courts, 0-2 in Majors. But they had not played in two and a half years, and Halep had become a different player, now with more confidence than ever before.

She would also need every ounce of her confidence and fitness to stave off numerous challengers to her No1 ranking. Indeed, four women were lining up: Naomi Osaka, Karolina Pliskova, Elina Svitolina and Petra Kvitova—and all had made the quarter-finals by the time Halep took to court, three of them located in her half.

The Romanian certainly looked up to the task in the first game: She broke to love, with Williams closing it out on a double fault.

It was a shock, and one that stung Williams into a purple patch that lasted for the next 15 minutes, and swept her to three breaks, six straight games, 6-1, 24 points to 13.

That, too, was a shock, but Halep showed just why she has held onto the No1 ranking for almost a year. She got her first hold of the match to open the second set, 1-0, but again the advantage was wiped out as Williams held and then broke, 2-1.

The two then engaged in a much longer fourth game, as Halep ran and ran, and worked a break point. She could not convert, but was now playing with more pace and tactical smartness. She picked off a winning smash, forced two more deuces, and then a second break point. She was rushing Williams into defensive mode to open up the court, and made the winner: 2-2. A love hold, and the Romanian was in the lead.

Halep’s speed, and her ability to change direction on a pinhead and change direction off her racket, are outstanding. She had Williams on the run, and began to pressure the former champion on her serve to earn real traction in the set.

Indeed Halep looked better with each game, manipulating the points with precision and crispness. Eventually, Williams would have to serve to save the set, and the tension of the moment detracted from her first serve. Halep pulled off a perfect backhand winner down the line to bring up set point, and once they were into a rally on the baseline, it was the nimble Halep who had control. Williams forced the final ball wide, and it was all square, 6-4.

This time, Halep headed the stats with 12 winners, just two unforced errors. It had been a near-perfect set, and it seemed to hand her the momentum.

But the Romanian had to work hard to hold on to her opening game in the third, as Williams jumped on her serve, and earned four chances to break. Halep resisted, and continued to make space with devastating changes of direction, while Williams went for the lines—winning some, losing some. At last, Halep forced a decisive error to hold, 1-0.

The second game was also a battle. Halep got to deuce courtesy of a double fault from Williams, but the former champion held.

A love hold apiece, and Halep again applied real pressure on the Williams serve, twice working through deuces to get break points. Williams—over reaching, perhaps—was missing first serves, and Halep took control, first a ball down the forehand line, then a cross-court change of direction.

The world No1 got another bite of the cherry with a blistering forehand winner, but Williams saved the break chance with a timely ace, and after five deuces, took it to 3-3.

The seventh game became pivotal, a battle royal, as Williams stepped up the pace and power, made a couple of big return winners, and broke. A swift hold, and she led, 5-3.

Halep, though, made a statement love hold: Williams would have to serve it out. And cometh the hour, cometh Serena. She lost the first point, but then swept four in a row, hitting the corners, and drawing one last error, to reach the quarters, 6-4.

It is hard to know what more Halep could have done: She played a tactically astute match, made 24 winners for only 12 unforced errors, through an intense and compelling hour and three-quarters. But Williams would not acquiesce: 44 winners, a first serve average speed of more than 100 mph, a top speed of almost 120mph.

Her form, thus far, has been formidable, and her next target will be former No1 and No7 seed Pliskova in the quarters, a woman who showed her own good form in beating fellow Major champion and former No1, Garbine Muguruza, for the loss of only four games. And whoever reaches the semis will find either Osaka or Svitolina—both with No1 campaigns in mind.

Williams cannot reach No1 in Melbourne, but believes she is still working her way back to her best. Talking about the challenge of playing Halep, she said:

“Well that’s why [Simona] is No1. She literally lifted her game to a new level. I didn’t. I kind of stayed at the same level, and I should have looked at my game, as well.

“But it’s a part of this journey on my way back. You know, it’s 10 months, so I can’t be too upset at myself… I’m still learning, which is, at my age and my point in my career, I think admirable and exciting that I still have things I can learn from.”

She is not wrong. Williams made her Major debut in Australia in 1998, and she won the first match, too, age just 16. This latest win marked her 84th—a record—in her 18th appearance at the tournament. She already has an Open record seven titles, but is in pursuit of a still bigger prize, a 24th Major—which would equal the all-time record of Margaret Court.

However, there are big challengers left, not least a possible rematch with US Open champion Osaka come the semis. The exciting 21-year-old beat Williams convincingly in New York, and also in Miami last year. A third meeting on one of the tour’s biggest stages is a mouth-watering prospect.

Other results

· Kvitova kept up her bid for her first Major semi-final since winning Wimbledon in 2014 with a win over Amanda Anisimova, 6-2, 6-1. The Czech, who last made the semis in Australia in 2012, has dropped no more than five games in any of her four matches.

· Kvitova next plays No15 seed, and home darling, Ashleigh Barty, who she beat in a marathon final in Sydney this month, 1-6, 7-5, 7-6(3).

· Barty beat Maria Sharapova, 4-6, 6-1, 6-4, and victory over Kvitova would make her the first Australian woman to reach the semis since Wendy Turnbull in 1984.

· Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova reached her fifth Major quarter after putting out No5 seed Sloane Stephens, 6-7(3), 6-3, 6-3, having beaten No9 seed Kiki Bertens in Round 2.

· She next plays fellow non-seed Danielle Collins, who claimed the scalp of former champion and No2 seed Angelique Kerber, 6-0, 6-2, having beaten No14 seed Julia Goerges in her opener.

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